Rock Hill Telephone Company, an Independent formed in 1894, serves 35,000 customers in a 214 square mile area in north-central South Carolina. The afternoon of Thursday, Sept 21, 1989 found the employees of the company preparing for the possibility that remnants of Hurricane Hugo might brush our service area during the coming night. Forecasters were predicting winds gusting to 4 miles per hour accompanied by possibility heavy rains. Since our service area is located nearly 160 airline miles from the Atlantic coast, no one expected the kind of weather we ultimately were to receive. Little did anyone know that within 12 hours our area would be ravaged by hurricane force winds and that the eye of the storm would pass directly over us.
Nevertheless, on that afternoon, we did take certain precautionary measures. Employees began securing the company’s buildings, testing emergency generators (including topping off their fuel tanks), and making preliminary contacts with outside plant contractors just in case we later found ourselves in need of additional repair personnel.
Just weeks preceding the storm, the company had established a “Network Alarm Center”. This center, manned 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, had been equipped to monitor alarms from all of our buildings and switching sites and was also capable of fully testing all of our local lines, interoffice trunks, switching systems, and special service circuits. The Network Alarm Center, combined with our Local Test Center, was to serve as the nerve center for the massive restoration effort which was about to begin.
During the night of September 21-22, Hugo walloped the coastal areas of South Carolina, then swept rapidly inland. Hugo retained hurricane force winds as it traveled toward Rock Hill Telephone Company’s service area. The storm reached us in full force around 2:00am on Friday, September 22. Soon, as trees were uprooted and fell over power lines, commercial power began to fail on a widespread basis. Alarm reports from our remote sites began flowing into the Network Alarm Center in unprecedented volumes. Around 5:30am, Hugo’s eye passed over us. Shortly thereafter, the backside of the storm reached the area, but its intensity had finally been lost during its inland travel. By 7:00am, the worst was over. Company employees began reporting to work to begin the restoration process that was to last for several weeks.
On the morning after the storm’s passage, three immediate problems faced us. These were the unprecedented level of traffic being carried by our switching system, the lack of commercial power at our remote switching sites, and the amount of damaged outside plant facilities needing repair. The former was being caused as customers understandably began using their phones to check on their families and neighbors. This calling volume was pushing the company’s computer-driven switching system to within mere percentage points of its upper limit of call processing capability. Our network technicians and engineers immediately consulted the manufacturer’s engineers, who began monitoring the system via a dial-up data link. As this joint team was formulating plans to artificially limit the traffic being presented to the system, the traffic began slowly diminishing on its own. Fortunately, at no time either during or after the storm did the company’s switching network fail to perform its vital job. With many streets impassable because of the downed trees and with local radio and television stations temporarily off the air because of power failures, the telephone became in many cases the only means by which the citizens of the area could obtain information.
The second problem—the lack of commercial power—was temporarily being held at bay by the company’s emergency generators and/or batteries located at the remote sites. Over the last ten years, the company had taken full advantage of technology which allows remote switching nodes to be placed nearer our customers, providing better service to them and enabling us to hold down costs. Each of these remote nodes is equipped with a band of batteries sized to provide at least eight hours of reserve capacity in the event of a commercial power failure. In addition, each of these nodes is equipped with a receptacle to allow a portable emergency generator to be transported to the site and plugged in to charge the batteries. A pool of generators is maintained at the company’s Work Center to perform this function. However, it was never anticipated that every remote site which we operate would simultaneously be without commercial power. In order to maintain emergency power at the maximum number of locations, company personnel began leap frogging generators from site to site. They also began calling nearby telephone companies which had not been affected by Hugo as well as equipment vendors to borrow or lease additional generators. Through the cooperation of many companies, enough generators were hurriedly obtained to keep nearly all of our sites operational until commercial power could eventually be restored.
The third problem—damaged outside plant facilities—could have been much worse. Fortunately, much of our new outside plant had been buries over the last twenty years. However, our remaining aerial plant was exposed to the full fury of the storm and had sustained major damage. Before these facilities could be replaced, fallen trees first had to be removed. In addition to the chain saws the company already owned, saws were purchased from local hardware stores and many employees supplemented these with their personal saws. Working in dangerous conditions from sun-up to sun-down, over 245 company employees and contact personnel reconstructed miles of cable and replaced hundreds of service drop wires destroyed by the storm. Our vendors worked diligently to supply the necessary poles, cable and other essential construction materials which were required.
Much needed offers of assistance from distant telephone companies were coming in to all of the South Carolina telephone companies affected by Hugo’s passage. To help in channeling these offers, the South Carolina Telephone Association (SCTA) quickly formed an ad hoc coordinating committee. Chaired by Dave Herron, General Manage of West Carolina Rural Telephone Cooperative, this committee proved so valuable that the Board of Directors of SCTA subsequently elevated it from ad hoc to standing committee status. It is hoped that any future disaster can be dealt with in an even better fashion through the existence of this group.
Our company was fortunate to have been able to provide uninterrupted telephone service to most of our customers, including almost all of the public safety agencies and the local hospital. However, we did receive approximately 7,000 trouble reports and at one point had 3,000 of our 35,000 customers completely with without service. These customers had service restored in the minimum possible time through the efforts of many dedicated people. Literally tens of thousands of additional manhours were spent to accomplish this task.
One of the lessons that Hugo taught us in that we need to be more self-sufficient should such a situation again confront us. To that end, our company is now purchasing additional portable generators. We are also replacing some of our older generators with new ones so that we may be assured of maximum reliability.
Perhaps foremost among the lessons learned is that one should never underestimate the power of natural forces. It has been said that the passage of Hugo through our area represented a “once in a century” occurrence. Certainly no one in our area anticipated the intensity with which Hugo would strike this far inland. Even had we been able to do so, there was very little more which could have been done to prepare for such a disaster. The key to dealing with this kind of happening is to have dedicated personnel who are knowledgeable, flexible, and resourceful enough to react as the situation demands. Rock Hill Telephone Company is fortunate to have people with those characteristics and that made all the difference.
Written February 12, 1990